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SCOTUS: Officers entitled to qualified immunity for entry into home of armed, violent, mentally ill subject

City and County of San Francisco, et al. v. Teresa Sheehan, USSC No. 13-1412, 2015 WL 2340839 (May 18, 2015), certiorari dismissed in part, and reversing in part and remanding Sheehan v. City and County of San Francisco, 743 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Because there was no precedent clearly establishing that it unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of a mentally ill person who is armed and potentially violent, the officers who entered Sheehan’s apartment are entitled to qualified immunity.

Sheehan’s social worker wanted to take Sheehan to a mental health facility for temporary commitment because Sheehan wasn’t taking her medication or taking care of herself. After she threatened him during a welfare check, the social worker called police for help. The officers knocked on Sheehan’s door and, when she didn’t answer, used the social worker’s key to enter. Sheehan threatened officers with a knife when they entered, forcing them to retreat to the hallway. The officers then broke down her door, and when Sheehan advanced on them with the knife they shot and wounded her. (Slip op. at 1-5).

The Ninth Circuit held the officers weren’t entitled to qualified immunity from Sheehan’s civil rights suit, which argued the second entry to her room violated the Fourth Amendment, because it was clearly established law that police can’t “forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill subject who had been acting irrationally and had threatened anyone who entered when there was no objective need for immediate entry,” 743 F.3d at 1229.

The Supreme Court finds no such clearly established law in either its precedent or in the circuit precedent on which the Ninth Circuit relied. The Supreme Court precedent the court of appeals relied on (Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)) is problematic because it adopts “far too general a proposition to control this case,” while the circuit precedent (Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F.3d 1272 (9th Cir. 2001), and Alexander v. City and County of San Francisco, 29 F.3d 1355 (9th Cir. 1994)) involved very different facts. (Slip op. at 13-15).

When Graham, Deorle, and Alexander are viewed together, the central error in the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning is apparent. The panel majority concluded that these three cases “would have placed any reasonable, competent officer on notice that it is unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill suspect who had been acting irrationally and had threatened anyone who entered when there was no objective need for immediate entry.” 743 F. 3d, at 1229. But even assuming that is true, no precedent clearly established that there was not “an objective need for immediate entry” here. No matter how carefully a reasonable officer read Graham, Deorle, and Alexander beforehand, that officer could not know that reopening Sheehan’s door to prevent her from escaping or gathering more weapons would violate the Ninth Circuit’s test, even if all the disputed facts are viewed in respondent’s favor. Without that “fair notice,” an officer is entitled to qualified immunity. … (Slip op. at 15).

As noted in our post on the cert grant, there was another issue presented in the case—namely, whether the Americans with Disabilities Act required the officers to makes some “accommodation” in their handling of Sheehan because of her mental illness. The Court doesn’t decide this issue, but instead dismisses it as improvidently granted. That’s because somewhere between its cert petition and its opening brief San Francisco changed its argument about the ADA’s applicability, which meant the question wasn’t subjected to adversarial briefing. (Slip op. at 7-10). (A harsh dissent by Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Kagan, accuses the petitioner of doing a “bait and switch” with the ADA issue in order to induce a cert grant, and would dismiss the entire case in order not to reward such tactics.) In addition, because the qualified immunity analysis is straightforward, the Court concludes it need not decide whether the Constitution was violated by the officers’ failure to accommodate Sheehan’s mental illness. (Slip op. at 17).

UPDATE (9/6/15): For the Seventh Circuit’s application of Sheehan to two similar cases, one arising in Wisconsin and one in Indiana, see Estate of William E. Williams, et al., v. Indiana State Police Dep’t, et al., 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 14-2523 (Aug. 13, 2015).

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